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Delegation at Work: Everyday mistakes, and how to avoid them

8 min read
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Delegation is much trickier than you think. Do you often find your employees not being able to do something as well as you? You thought you had explained the task clearly but they somehow did not execute it well.

Have you not felt freed up despite delegating a good share of your work? You thought employees would take up the task with ease but they kept coming back to you and you ended up doing most of it.

You are certainly not alone. Entrepreneurs and managers across verticals agree that delegation is one of the trickiest areas to deal with.

You cannot, and should not do it all by yourself. As a leader, you would eventually have to work with other managers and the top management on high-level decisions such as the goals, strategies, and projections — you have to learn to delegate irrespective of whether you like it or not.

Interestingly, delegation is not the same as dumping tasks on people. Real delegation happens when the employee becomes a stakeholder in the outcome of the process.

There’s a myriad of reasons why most leaders do not delegate very well:

  • They think their team will not be able to do the job as well as them.
  • They believe the team would not be as committed to the quality of the outcome.
  • They are not sure if the team will be motivated enough to do the job well.

Basically, you will have to learn to engage others in your vision and not just help you with your work.

How can managers/leaders learn to let go

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The biggest problem we see in delegation is that leaders are willing to delegate tasks but not their authority, or responsibility.

They still want to keep a close eye on the team. They still want to make crucial decisions involved in accomplishing the task.

Delegation in most cases becomes synonymous with micromanagement — this is exactly what needs to change.

Delegation should be about empowerment, trust, and motivation. You want your team to feel good when you give them more work and not the opposite — here’s how:

Let go of “I can do it better myself”

You will have to start placing trust in your team. Your motto will have to change to “We can achieve more when we work together.”

Take a moment and think: Is what you’re doing the best use of your time? Does it really bring your intelligence into play? Does it make you think?

You might be great at handling a client inquiry, coming up with a great solution, sending them a fantastic proposal, and eventually closing the deal — but, does all of that really need to be done by you?

You can always hand over the tactical bits to someone while you watch the overall progress from the outside. Have your team write the proposal and you can suggest edits. They will be far more involved in the process as you got them onboard at the very beginning.

Let go of “It’s faster if I do it myself”

I understand it is a pain to watch someone else struggle when you could have done it so much faster. You will have to acknowledge that not everyone will have the same level of comfort and expertise as you.

The key here is training. Have your team watch as you execute a process. Break it into steps and get them to ask questions. Once they have a fair idea of how it’s done, get them to do it while you watch. Help them wherever they get stuck.

Spending time on training is always worth it. By training your team, you are not just accomplishing a task, you are creating a long-term resource for your business or your company. You are saving the countless hours of tos and fros of emails which would otherwise ensue.

Let go of “It’s done exactly how I do it”

If you want to delegate something, you will have to stop striving for greatness in it. You will have to accept the fact that your team might not be able to do as good as you, at least in the beginning.

Knowing when something is good enough to sail is an important managerial skill. Here’s where an interesting rule comes into the picture — the 70 percent rule. The rule states, if your team is able to do it at least 70 percent as well as you can, go ahead and delegate it.

The key here is to not get frustrated when the outcome is not perfect. Delegation and perfection can simply never go hand in hand.

To let go of perfection, ask yourself what is more important: the perfect outcome (the way you have done it) or the completion of the task. Give your employees some leeway and you will be surprised how they come up with even better ways of doing the task.

The next step is learning the fundamentals of delegation. You will have to maintain a certain degree of discipline and a follow a code of conduct that is conducive to generating results.

Fundamentals to help you get great results from delegation

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Delegation works best when there is a clear result-oriented thought process in place.

You cannot ask your staff to do something and keep interrupting them every few hours. You cannot set vague deadlines and hold them responsible for not having clarity.

Here are a few delegation fundamentals to set you on the right track:

Set clear expectations

When you delegate a task, make it a point to set clear expectations for communication and updates. Finding out at the last moment that a task has not been completed, or it does not match up to the set expectations, is a complete nightmare.

A key aspect of delegation is keeping the two-way communication going. If you’d like your team to let you know the status of a task every day, fix a time for that and set it up on everyone’s calendar. The point is to leave no room for ambiguity or confusion.

It is equally important to set very clear deadlines. ‘Sometime next week’ or ‘by the end of this quarter’ are vague, and will only cause ambiguity. Set specific dates for completion of tasks. Communicate how strict or flexible they are.

Create ownership

When you delegate something to your team, you cannot simply assume that they have accepted the task as their own.

You have to create ownership in their minds. Your team has to know that it’s their and only their responsibility. Your team has to understand that they are morally responsible to do a good job.

Even if they take someone’s help to finish the task, they have to know that they are responsible for its timely completion and the quality of the output.

Let them know what the consequence (for the company and for themselves) will be if they fail to deliver the desired outcome. Tell them they will be responsible if they fail to deliver.

Stay clear of micromanagement

When you assign a task to your team, set the overarching parameters but leave enough room for them to take their own decisions, solve a few problems, and think creatively.

When you micromanage, it is like punishing someone for taking initiative. It teaches your employees that they should seek help at every step. Breathing down your team’s necks will cause resentment at the same time. It will make them feel like a cog in someone else’s wheel. They will never be able to take ownership.

Ensure you give your employees room to learn, make a few rookie mistakes. Problem-solving is always more fun than executing orders.

Your job is to watch the process from a distance, without interrupting. For instance, say you are delegating customer emails to a teammate and would like to keep a bit of an eye. Go ahead and set up a shared mailbox. It will let you see the entire thread even when you’re not copied on the email.

Do not ‘reverse delegate’

A lot of managers are overworked because their employees are better at delegating than they are. The tasks somehow come back to the manager and they actually end up working on them.

Why? We like it when people need us for help. We like solving problems. We like to be the hero. Well, you have to remember that you have delegated the task already — let your team be the hero.

It is a good thing to be helpful but don’t go overboard. The moment you say ‘let me think about this and get back to you’, you have already fallen for reverse delegation. In such a situation, your job is to give them the resources and coach them if need be — do not take the problem solving on yourself.

In a worse case scenario when your team looks helpless, ask them to come up with two or three different versions of the solution and you can help them evaluate ideas and go in the right direction from there.

Once you have the right mindset for delegation, you are ready to get down to business — how do you decide which tasks to delegate?

How do you decide which tasks to delegate

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Knowing the answer to this can at times be harder than the actual delegation process.

What is it that takes a lot of your time and can be done by someone else? To what degree would you want to control a process? Would the person you delegate to do justice to the task?

There is a stream of thoughts running inside your mind when you want to delegate a task. It is certainly not an easy decision — here are a few things to help you decide.

Delegate small and mundane tasks

These are tasks that look small, do not require a lot of intelligence, do not match with your skill set, but add up to a lot over a period of time. They are neither urgent nor strategic but still interrupt your flow of work.

Entering customer information into your CRM, fixing a call with them, adding it to your calendar — all of this takes little time on a daily basis, but add up to many hours when you put them together.

Managing emails which are not of strategic importance is again something you should delegate. For example, when someone pitches you a guest post, read the first email and leave the correspondence to someone else. A quick way to assign emails as tasks is by using our shared mailbox — all you’d need is a couple of clicks, no forwarding.  

Delegate tasks that are outside your area of familiarity

Anything that would require you to spend a lot of time to learn and become an expert in can always be delegated to someone else.

Creating videos or animations is a classic case. It would take years for you to develop the right skills. Delegating them should be a no-brainer.

Another example of this is SEO. Everyone seems to know a lesson or two in search and it looks rather tempting to do it yourself. The reality, however, is that it takes a lot of catching up to do every time Google brings out a new update. You’d rather give this over to an agency or hire a specialist.

The same goes for social media and PR. These are again areas that might look simple in the beginning but takes an experienced professional to deliver results. The time you’d spend on learning and mastering them is just not worth it.

Delegate tasks which involve changing regulations

Tasks that belong in areas with often-changing regulations are best left to the experts — they would have the time and the resources to watch the developments closely.

Accounting is an area where rules change so often that if you do not keep at it on a daily basis, you’ll miss something from a tax standpoint. At the same time, you’re dealing with government agencies — should anything go wrong, the consequences are stiff. It is best left to someone who does it full-time.

Delegate tasks that can be broken into teachable steps

These are tasks the look complicated but can be broken into simple steps. You have to clearly define the to-dos for every step, remain involved with the quality checks and final approval — you’re good to delegate it.

The process of categorizing your website’s incoming requests, reaching out to them with a standard reply (you can use our email templates), and managing email correspondence until it reaches a point of strategic high-level decision making — does not require a specific skill set and can be learned by anyone.

You are better off delegating it to someone. It will also be a good learning opportunity for them.

Delegate if you are not great at it

These are tasks that just don’t match your strength, you feel underequipped doing them, and you do a terrible job at them.

The sign you have to watch out for — you take much longer accomplishing something than someone skilled in that area.

A typical example is preparing powerpoint decks. All of us know how to make presentations, and nobody really manages to do a great job at them. When you have to prepare a deck for your next conference, give it to a graphic designer and you’ll notice the difference in quality.

By now, I am sure you’d have a list of things that don’t get you excited and you are ready to delegate them — let’s dive into the stepwise sequence you should follow when delegating.

Delegation: the stepwise sequence

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Delegation is not a transaction. “I assign work to an employee, they do it, I reward them” — it is much more than dumping tasks and patting people’s backs.

You have to look at delegation as a process of building trust and fostering relations. When implemented systematically, it will strengthen the relations between the manager and the employees — let’s dive into the steps you should follow.

1. Reflect, and Prepare

Before you go about delegating a task, you should have pinpoint clarity of the results you expect to see. If the expectations keep changing, your team would not be able to deliver results.

Identify possible constraints and boundaries. Draw clear lines of authority and responsibility: Should your team A. wait to be told to what to do? B. take their own decisions? C. report results immediately? D. report periodically? Create a list of guidelines. The idea is not leaving any room for confusion.

Think the task through. Break it into steps and establish the time each should take. You will have to keep in mind that the task might be new to the employee and they might not be able to deliver as quickly as you.

Like they say “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

2. Decide whom to delegate to

There are two things you have to keep in mind when you’re deciding who should take up the task:

  1. The available skill capability — The best possibility is that your team already has the skills to take up the job. If not, do you trust them to learn it? If yes, get them trained by a professional. I agree training takes time but you have to remember that you are creating a long-term resource for the company.
  2. The available time — What do you do if your team has no free time? As a leader, your job is to create capacity by helping them prioritize their work. Help them drop or postpone less important tasks.
  3. The individual’s preferred work style — Not everyone can do everything. You will have to consider how independent a person is. Discover what do they want from their job — does the task/project match-up with their long-term goals and interests.

 

Basically, you need to have confidence that your staff has the ability to take up the task. You delegate something to the wrong person and you’re setting them up for failure.

A good rule of thumb is to look for good team players. You want people with the attitude that the delegated responsibility is ‘theirs’.

3. Instruct and hand over

Take some time to explain why they were chosen for this job. Tell them about the large goals you have in mind, and what is expected from them. Be very clear about the deadline you have in mind. Set guidelines for updates and any other communication involved.

Additionally, spend time in coaching your team on the actual task. If time warrants, show them how it’s done. Specify steps that are more crucial than others, and areas where most people make mistakes.

What’s critically important is that you and the delegatee agree upon the process, and the desired outcome. Go ahead and have them paraphrase the deliverable you’ve assigned to them. Be careful not to offend them by saying something like “can you repeat what I just said?” You’d rather be creative about it — something like “how would you explain this to another employee?”

Ask them if they have any questions about the process. See to it that they have all the resources they need. Let them know you are available for guidance should they get stuck somewhere.

Useful tip: You can keep a keen eye from the outside in the beginning when your team is more prone to making mistakes. For instance, if it’s an email-based process, go ahead and use shared labels — they will give you access to email conversations even when you are not copied on them.

4. Close the loop

The final step is to accept the completed task from the employee. Make sure you have set aside enough time to review the output thoroughly.

Accept only good quality work. Keep in mind that accepting mediocre work would require you to spend time on it, keeping your own work aside. At the same time, keep their experience in mind and limit your standards, especially if they were new to the task.

It is imperative that you offer appreciation and provide constructive feedback on anything that can be improved. There’s a good chance you did not do a great job at coaching during the initial stages. Do remember that nobody likes to do a poor job, the reason might be the leader again.

Delegation is not the same as dumping tasks

As a leader, there is nothing more important than improving your delegation skills and it all starts with shifting your mindset.

Always remember that delegation does not mean dumping tasks on people. Set time aside and stick to the fundamentals, the process, and the relationship building.

Build a good rapport with your team and they’d be more than willing to go an extra mile to deliver their best.

Even when delegation seems more of a hassle, you have to remind yourself that by delegating, you free up time for yourself, for thinking about bigger things.

Most importantly, your career growth depends on your ability to free up capacity so you can take on new projects while building the skill-sets of those on your team to support you.

Hiver HQ
Harsh is the content lead at Hiver. He's jocular, loves dogs, and is always up for a road trip. He also reads - when Netflix gets boring.
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